Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Last week my wife & I enjoyed one of the best movies we’ve seen in a long time. It’s called Get Low.
Get Low is based on the true story of a hermit living in the hills of Tennessee during the 1930s. Felix Bush is a man that everyone fears. Nobody really knows anything about him because he’s hardly ever seen.
One day the local pastor drives out to Felix Bush’s cabin to let him know that one of his few friends had died. That got the hermit thinking about his own death. He decides to pay for a funeral party for himself— while he’s still alive! He wants to invite anyone who has a story about him to come & tell their story. He walks into the local funeral director’s office & says, Let’s get low. The funeral director replies, “What?” The old hermit says, “That means, Let’s get down to business. Let’s plan this party.”
Soon it becomes clear that the funeral party plan isn’t so great because nobody has anything good to say about Felix Bush. But he doesn’t give up on the idea. He decides to contact what may be his best friend, an African- American preacher whom he hasn’t seen in decades. He asks his friend if he will tell everyone at the funeral party the story of why he became a hermit. Felix Bush has a terrible secret about himself that led him to become a hermit, & his preacher friend is the only person he’d ever told the story to.
Charlie Jackson, the preacher, asks him a question. Have you asked for forgiveness? Without hesitating the old hermit says, “No, I haven’t asked for forgiveness.” Charlie says, Then there’s no way in the world I’m going to tell your story.
At the beginning of the movie when the old hermit says to the funeral director, Let’s get low. Let’s get down the business, we assume that “getting low” means getting down to the business of planning Felix Bush’s funeral party. But gradually we see that “getting low” means getting down to the business of forgiveness.
If I were to ask you, What is the “business” of the Christian life? how would you answer? You might say: Obeying the rules, doing good deeds, having the right beliefs, choosing between right & wrong. There’s a kernel of truth in each of these. But I don’t have to be Christian to obey the rules or do good deeds. And the world is full of people who think they’re right, even if they believe in no God at all.
No, what sets us apart is forgiveness. God is not in the business of rules & regulations, or doctrine, or even having the right beliefs. God is in the forgiveness business. To “get low”—to get down to business–with God means we also must be in the business of forgiveness.
Early in the movie we get the idea that Felix Bush, the old hermit, has refused to ask for forgiveness because he thinks he’s right & doesn’t care what anyone thinks. It’s an attitude that we see across our land today, & in fact, the globe. “Why should I ask for forgiveness when I’m right?” It’s the spirit of a Florida pastor who gets the world’s attention by threatening to burn copies of the Quran: “We need to send the bad guys a message. It’s others who need to ask for forgiveness. I’m already doing my part.”
But as the story unfolds we find that Felix Bush isn’t asking for forgiveness, not because he thinks he’s right. He thinks what he did forty years ago is so bad that he doesn’t think he deserves forgiveness.
The old hermit says to his preacher friend: Forty years ago I built a cabin & cut myself off from everyone. I built myself a prison I’ve been living in ever since. Isn’t that enough?
His friend answers, No, it’s not enough. You need to ask for forgiveness. It sounds cruel, but the old preacher was right. In order to be released from that “prison” of his own making the old hermit needed to ask God for forgiveness. He needed to ask his community for forgiveness. But most of all, he needed to forgive himself.
God is in the forgiveness business. Disciples of Jesus Christ “get low” with God–get down to business–by imitating the Master. We also are in the forgiveness business.
In today’s gospel reading Luke writes that it was the “good” people who constantly complained about Jesus. This fellow welcomes sinners & eats with them. Pay close attention to this. Jesus hangs out with sinners.
Where are you in this story? What is your priority? Who do you think of as sinners? How much energy do you spend worrying about or criticizing those whom you think of as sinners? Remember, that’s who Jesus hangs out with–not the good guys! How much energy do you spend insisting on the “right” beliefs? In today’s gospel reading from Luke heaven doesn’t rejoice when Christians believe the right things. Heaven rejoices when the lost are found. Did you notice? The coin didn’t do anything worthy of praise. The lost sheep didn’t do any good deed. They simply were found. These stories don’t focus on our goodness. They focus on the unconditional, undeserved grace, mercy & love of God in Jesus.
So again, where are you in the story? Do you think that you’re already doing your part & that it’s others that need to ask for forgiveness? Or, do you think of yourself as so bad that you’re not worthy of forgiveness?
There’s a third, better option: Get low with God. Get down to business. Get down to forgiveness.
Today’s readings give us a way of taking our spiritual temperature. We can tell whether or not we’re getting down to business by how we experience ourselves in relation to others. Are we anxious, fearful, angry? Do we spend our energy critical of the “bad guys?” Do we think of ourselves as the good guys? (Read today’s passage from Jeremiah & the Psalm to see how even “good” people don’t measure up in the eyes of God.) Or, do we spend our energy beating up on ourselves? In either case, like that old Tennessee hermit we, too, have built a prison for ourselves–& a prison is not a place of joy.
By contrast, listen again to the testimony of Paul. “I am grateful…” (read 1 Timothy passage). Here is a man filled not with anger or guilt or despair but with gratitude & joy. This is the mark of a disciple of Jesus Christ. Paul’s joy reflects the joy of Jesus, a man who loves to hang out not with “good” people but with sinners. Notice again who in our gospel reading is angry & grumbling & complaining. It’s the good people. It’s the religious people who have built their own prison of unhappiness. They are the lost sheep & the lost coin, waiting to be found.
At the end of the movie the old hermit stands before hundreds of people at his own funeral party & musters the courage to tell his story. (I won’t tell you his story; go see the movie!) Suffice it to say that the old man was right. He did have a dark secret. He was a sinner. He needed to ask God & his community for forgiveness. But it wasn’t as simple as that. In real life we know that life is not as simple as black & white, good & bad. Most of all we find that Felix Bush needed to accept God’s forgiveness for himself & allow the forgiveness of God & his fellow human beings to wash over him.
Jesus Christ came to be among sinners. How is with you? To what extent are you “getting low” with God?